Spanish moss cascades from treacherous staircases, crumbling columns and broken window shutters; the playful shrieks of unseen children are rendered in a spectral timbre. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and her design team imbue Drury Lane Theatre’s new revival of Tennessee Williams’s 1955 melodrama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with trappings of impermanence and decay.
The suggestion seems to be that the plantation which the characters of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” scheme to secure — and, perhaps, the repressive mores that keep them lying to each other and themselves — are now so much dust in the wind.
It’s an intriguing conceit on the surface. Unfortunately, it has the unintended effect of lowering the stakes on a play that’s fueled entirely by passionate arguments and salacious secrets. Even the actors seem to have internalized the message: The concerns that animate Williams’ Southern belles and whistlers aren’t so deep to us today, and so the production remains surface-level.
And “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which takes place on the night of Mississippi plantation owner “Big Daddy” Pollitt’s 65th birthday party, doesn’t traffic so much in action as in revelations — so if those reveals aren’t played to the hilt, it can make for a not-so-hot night. Among the various secrets and lies: Big Daddy (Matt DeCaro) has terminal cancer, a diagnosis that everyone is keeping from both the patient and his anxious wife, Big Mama (played through August 12 by Cindy Gold, to be replaced by Janet Ulrich Brooks for the remainder of the run).
Big Daddy’s golden-boy son Brick (Anthony Bowden) has fallen deep into the bottle following the recent death of the unseen Skipper, Brick’s best friend who might have wanted benefits; Brick isn’t sleeping with his wife, Maggie (Genevieve Angelson), but she might have slept with Skipper. Maggie’s desperate to bear a child in order to compete for the plantation with Brick’s older brother Gooper (Michael Milligan) and Gooper’s obsequious, over-fertile wife Mae (Gail Rastorfer) — the parents of that ghostly herd of heard-but-not-seen kids — here to get Big Daddy to make out a last will and testament, preferably to their material benefit.
Though it earned Williams his second Pulitzer Prize, “Cat” is a pretty soap-operatic affair, stocked with bald exposition, interfamilial squabbles and prurient detail. In terms of psychological insight or structural invention, it doesn’t hold up to breakthrough works like “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It’s as much “Dynasty” on the Delta as it is Greek-style tragedy.
Yet “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” sustains, normally, on the strength of juicy roles for actors. Chief among these is Maggie, the “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” of the title (a self-dramatizing feline on the prowl, she refers to herself as a “cat on a hot tin roof” no fewer than four times in the script). Though Maggie really only dominates the first of the play’s three acts, she’s so forceful in that extended face-off with Brick that she tends to be the face of the play. Certainly that was the case with Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 film adaptation, and even into this century new major productions seem to crop up as often as high-profile actresses want to hit the roof (see Ashley Judd, Anika Noni Rose and Scarlett Johansson headlining three Broadway revivals in under a decade).
Angelson has an intelligence and a flouncy charm that suit the easy-breezy confidence Maggie wants to project. But she’s lacking the neediness that necessarily undermines that confidence for dramatic tension. If Maggie really believed she had nine lives, she wouldn’t exert so much energy on bringing Brick around. And Angelson gets few favors from Bowden, who reads as young for the role and who has Brick’s looks but none of his inner turmoil. Combined with an affected drawl, Bowden comes off like Jimmy Stewart doing Faulkner.
Chicago veteran DeCaro gets a little more out of Bowden in the extended one-on-one bout between Big Daddy and Brick that makes up much of the play’s middle act. But even here, the temperature is pitched somewhere below boiling; the actors peak at “frustrated” rather than the requisite insatiable need for resolution, and DeCaro’s Big Daddy ends the confrontation by grumbling off upstairs instead of hitting a new nerve that might carry us through intermission. Again, Dodge’s low-energy revival matches Kevin Depinet’s time-lapsed scenic design: This is a period piece, its potential vitality eclipsed by an overgrowth of weeds.